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Opening Arguments

Body of work

Never mind Christian bakers not wanting to cater gay weddings. Do tattoo artists have the right to refuse to ink someone? A delicate flower at the Jezebel site doesn't think so. She asked tattoo artist Dan for a neck tattoo of her daughter's name and went ballistic when he refused:

Dan: “It’ll look tacky. It’s just tacky.”

Me: “Wait, you’re telling me what will look tacky on me? Don’t I get to decide that?”

Dan: “A neck tattoo on someone without a lot of tattoos is like lighting a birthday candle on an unbaked cake.” Stunning analogy, right? I wonder: Does Dan know what an analogy even is? And then suddenly I’m fighting back tears because, as Dan has already correctly assessed, I’m just a feeble-minded, hysterical girl. And then I ask the next thing that pops into my head.

Me: “Would you say this to a guy?”

Dan luh-hiterally paused, looked askance, and said with a slight nod, unconvincingly, “Yeah.”

At this point, notes David French at The Corner, we can almost guess what will happen:

Profane mockery combined with identity politics is exactly the way the Left so often gets what it wants. As I clicked through to read the next part of the story, I knew what to expect — an apology from the tattoo artist, a promise of free tattoos for the whole Jezebel office, and perhaps a donation to a women’s advocacy group just for good measure. After all, there’s nothing like a good P.C. fit to get a campus administrator (or Republican governor) to soil themselves in fear.

 But that's not happened.  The Inked tattoo site jumped into the fray and defended the artist's refusal:
Chief among our traditions is that quality tattoo artists are the custodians of the craft. What they say goes. Also, how dare she admonish him for refusing the tattoo on any grounds? A tattoo is a collaborative effort between the artist and the wearer, if the artist doesn’t want to take on a piece then he or she needn’t feel pressured.

 And Dan himself chimed in:
As all tattooers know, a neck or hand tattoo is a big commitment, and traditionally are reserved for those heavily covered and ready to confront society on a daily basis as a heavily tattooed person. Although tattoos are more accepted now than ever, we are still judged daily for our appearance. A hand or neck tattoo may mean the difference between that next job or promotion, and also may spur daily judgmental looks and harassing comments from strangers as many of my friends have experienced. It’s not a thing to be taken lightly and I long ago drew an ethical line in the sand for myself as professional tattooer to turn down “job stoppers” on those who are not already committed to living as a heavily tattooed person. If I was to make the decision again today, I would still say no. I hope for her sake she does not get judged as harshly for her new neck tattoo as she judged myself and the staff of New York Adorned upon walking into our shop.

 [. . .]
I take my craft seriously. I take the time-honored traditions of tattooing seriously. Traditions and respect that we are losing daily to a new petulant culture screaming “gimme now!” and treating tattooers with the same disrespect they wrongly just waged at the last Starbucks barista who made their latte. I won’t be part of it and I refuse to support it. In the end, just know this “SeeJaneMarie”: Tattooing is my tribe. We will allow you to be a tourist, we will even welcome you to join, but don’t be surprised that in 2015 there are still some things that cannot be bought, just earned.

 Just wow. "Some things cannot be bought, just earned." This whole story struck me because it offers a fascinating look at the ethics of a world I know little about. I was impressed not only with Dan's commitment to the traditions of his craft but also to the well-being of his clients. But I wanted to know if I was getting the right things out of it, so I passed it along to get a reading from an expert, my niece Melissa, a first-rate tattoo artist in Texas.
She agreed with the tattoo artist's approach (she also would not do a neck or hand tattoo for a first-timer, also for the same reason, that one would come with a lot of baggage the recipient probably hasn't thought about how to carry), and came up with a succinct summary of his viewpoint: 1. have the right to do whatever I want to with my body but, 2. I don't have the right to make you be the one to do it. To me that's a profound statement of the way people in a free society should interact with each other. I have my deal, and you have your deal, and they intersect only when we both want them to. But I also know it sounds quaintly retrograde in today's "you must not only accept my deal but take part in it whether you want to or not" atmosphere.
I asked Melissa if she had ever read Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." She said no, and I told her it was about maintaining your individuality and integrity instead of bowing to societal pressure. It's protagonist (if my dimming memory hasn't failed me) is an architect who refuses to design the buildings his clients want. Instead, he designs buildings that HE loves, then goes out and finds clients who will cherish them the same way he does.
She wasn't willing to buy into the book's ode to selfishness that deeply. "You do have to work WITH your clients," she texted, "or you are nothing." So she does end up doing some tattoos that "are stupid or maybe artistically beneath" her, but she has to draw a line. It's like that architect refusing to design a building that would be unsafe or otherwise unacceptable. Above all, she thinks about the body of her work and whether, taken as a whole, it is a legacy worthy of her talent. As an independent contractor, she has a certain amount of leeway in what she accepts and what she declines. But the tattoo parlors she contract with are businesses, after all. If she turns down too many clients, she won't stay employed. She always worries about getting the balance rright and that he body of work will be one she can be proud of. The best way for her to do that is to work with business owners she knows she is in general agreement with on principles.
That's her deal. And, when I think about it, it's a lot like my deal. I'm a paid employee rather than an independent contractor, so I have slightly less leeway in what I can choose to write. The editorial page is not about my opinion -- it's an institutional instrument to convey the opinion of the newspaper, i.e. the owner and/or publisher. But I've always refused to write anything I don't personally believe and every publisher I've had has agreed to that. If there is an opinion he or she has wanted expressed and it was one I couldn't agree with, there was always somebody else available to write it. The trick, as with Melissa's work, is to find a publisher with an editorial page I am mostly in agreement with.
So, I'm not able to express every opinion I want to, but every opinion I've expressed is something I've agreed with. That's not a bad place to be in, and when my body of work is judged, I won't have the excuse that somebody else made me do it.